Maria Ressa cleared of four tax violation charges

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Maria Ressa cleared of four tax violation charges
Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa gestures after she was acquitted of the tax evasion cases against her at the Court of Tax Appeals in Quezon City, Metro Manila on January 18, 2023. Ressa and her online news outfit Rappler were on January 18 acquitted of all four charges of tax evasion filed against her, an appellate tax court said.
AFP / Jam Sta. Rosa

MANILA, Philippines (Update 2, 10:57 a.m.) — The Court of Tax Appeals has acquitted Rappler CEO and veteran journalist Maria Ressa of tax violation case, clearing her of four charges she had been facing.

The CTA’s First Division acquitted Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corp. “for failure of the prosecution to prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt.”

Ressa sits as CEO of Rappler Holdings Corp. (RHC).

“No civil liability may be adjudged against the accused as the alleged unpaid tax obligations have not been factually and legally established and proven,” part of the ruling read.

Ressa has been cleared of three counts of willful failure to supply correct information and one count of tax evasion. The government, in their case against Ressa, alleged that RHC failed to supply correct information in its value-added tax Returns and income tax returns for the third and fourth quarter of 2015.

It also alleged that the company attempted to evade payment of taxes in 2015 for the sale of Philippine Depositary Receipts to NBM Rappler LP and Omidyar Network Fund LLC.

But the CTA said that “there is nothing in the wordings of the PDR Instruments and the PDR Subscription Agreements that would show that the foreign entities NBM and ON will become owners of the shares of stock of RI upon the issuance of the PDRs.”

The tax court pointed out that the PDR holder in the case only has an option to purchase shares subject to certain conditions. This means that PDR holders many not exercise ownership of the shares and are just investors.

The CTA also said that the supposed inaccurate information provided by RHC “does not relate to the imputed trading incoming alleged by the plaintiff.”

“In sum, since accused is not required to pay the income tax, and VAT on the PDR transactions for the taxable year 2015, the elements of Sections 254 and 255 of the 1997 [National Internal Revenue Code], as amended are rendered nugatory and without legal support,” the decision read.

“The plaintiff, therefore failed to prove the guilty of the accused beyond reasonable doubt,” the tax court added.

‘Justice wins’

An emotional Ressa spoke to reporters after the promulgation and hailed that: “Today, facts win. Truth wins. Justice wins.”

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines also welcomed Ressa’s acquittal, as it said that the cases against the Nobel laureate and her news company “illustrate the increasing use of the law for reprisal against and for intimidation of journalists and civil society.”

“While colleagues similarly face legal challenges — from libel to made-up terrorism charges —  in relation to their work, we take inspiration from this acquittal that if we stand up and hold the line, we can win,” they added.

Lawyer Francis Lim, one of Ressa’s legal counsels, for his part said: “A contrary decision today would have negative implications not only on the freedom of the press but on the economy.”

Lim also expressed optimism that truth and justice will also prevail at the Securities and Exchange Commission where “the very life of Rappler has been cancelled or put to death.”

The SEC in June 2022 affirmed its 2018 decision to order the shutdown of Rappler as it held that the company allegedly violated the constitutional and statutory Foreign Equity Restriction in Mass Media. Rappler has since appealed this ruling.

Ressa said they came to the court and held their belief in it “despite everything was happening.” She maintained that the charges are “politically-motivated,” but held that she never thought that the cases filed against her were personal.

The journalist said she holds nothing against former President Rodrigo Duterte, who has not hidden his disdain of Ressa and her media company and under whose administration saw the filing of a slew of legal suits against them. 

Ressa was convicted of cyber libel in 2020, and has since appealed to overturn this verdict. — with reports from Xave Gregorio

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